Memories of Nakajima Honmachi, Part 8

by Masami Nishimoto, Senior Staff Writer

Recalling the essence of August 6, 1945

“It’s like a park for tourists,” said Ryoga Suwa, the chief priest of Johoji Temple. “It’s too beautiful to recall the bombing.” Mr. Suwa feels something is missing from Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with its lovely green lawn and stone pavement. Fifty years have now passed since the atomic bombing and “the city government seems to think the A-bomb Dome and this park are sufficient for contemplating peace,” he said.

Johoji Temple was once located in Nakajima Honmachi, to the west of the spot where the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims now stands. The temple sat 300 meters from the bomb’s hypocenter. Mr. Suwa’s father, Reikai, then 57, the former priest of the temple, and his mother Kuni, then 56, who was commuting to the temple from an evacuation site, perished on August 6, 1945. His older sister Reiko, then 16, a fourth-year student at Aki Girls’ High School who had been mobilized to help dismantle houses to create firebreaks, also died in the blast. Mr. Suwa has been unable to find any remains.

Mr. Suwa was a sixth grader at Nakajima Elementary School and had been evacuated to Kozenji Temple in the northern part of Hiroshima Prefecture. About 40 children were evacuated to this temple. As the devastation of Hiroshima gradually became known, the students came to sit on the steps of the temple. Everyone was crying, he said, gazing up at the sky to the south.

On September 16, Mr. Suwa returned to Johoji Temple and found gravestones there had been blown face down on the ground. The very next day, the Makurazaki Typhoon, which left 2012 people dead or missing, struck the area.

In such staggering chaos, the burden to rebuild the temple, which had existed for some 340 years, fell on Mr. Suwa’s shoulders, who was just 12. Fortunately, the temple’s key artwork and other artifacts had been removed for safekeeping by his father. He had no idea, though, what had become of all the temple’s followers, who were scattered across the bomb-stricken area. “There were 150 family graves at the temple, but about 30 of them were left untended after the bombing,” said Mr. Suwa. The survivors were not the only ones who lost loved ones; the dead, too, already buried, became separated from those they had loved.

While living temporarily with one of the temple’s followers, Mr. Suwa invited a man from Shimane Prefecture to serve as the chief priest of Johoji Temple. In 1953, eight years after the bombing, a ceremony to mark the reconstruction of the temple was conducted in current Otemachi. At that time, Peace Memorial Park was under construction.

In 1956, “The Figure of the Merciful Goddess” was erected in the park, which still had more weeds than trees. The inscription reads: “The survivors of Nakajima Honmachi raised this memorial to provide prayers for the repose of the dead.” Except during a three-year mission in Brazil to spread the Buddha’s teaching, Mr. Suwa has taken in part in the Peace Memorial Ceremony each year, conducting a memorial service at the monument to Nakajima Honmachi.

“Without understanding the will of the dead and reflecting upon it, the appeal for peace will be too weak to register,” said Mr. Suwa. He expressed concern that memorial services held by the government of Hiroshima Prefecture and among schools and companies is declining, as evidenced by the decreasing number of invitations for such services sent out to A-bomb survivors.

Mr. Suwa himself makes every effort to reflect on the victims of the atomic bombing. He has been involved in the campaign to preserve A-bomb buildings, such as the Rest House in Peace Memorial Park, which was originally a shop selling fabric for kimono. He gathers signatures of support from Hiroshima citizens for this campaign.

“The value of life can only be felt when some trace of the bombing remains. For example, if I could still feel the earth under my feet here, I might be aware of the scorched ground of the bombing’s aftermath, even if only faintly,” said Mr. Suwa, standing at the former site of Johoji Temple, now covered over neatly with stone pavement.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony has been conducted in front of the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims since 1952, the year this monument was erected. At the ceremony the latest names are consecrated to the Cenotaph. To date [as of 1999, when this article was written], a total of 207,045 victims have been confirmed. This year [1999], over 4000 names will be added to the list.

“Hiroshima is now known to the world because of the atomic bombing,” said Mr. Suwa. He emphasized the importance of renewing our pledge and our prayers for peace, no matter where in the world we are, in order to prevent such a tragedy, and war itself, from claiming more lives. Born and raised in Nakajima Honmachi, Mr. Suwa considers this is the essence of August 6, 1945.

(Originally published on August 4, 1999)